Single-gender school events allowed under new RI law

By Matt Plain

Rhode Island public schools can sponsor gender-specific extracurricular events as long as they also provide “reasonably comparable” events for students of the opposite gender under a new state law passed this summer.

Gov. Chafee allowed the bill to become law without signing it, despite pressure from numerous women’s groups and the American Civil Liberties Union to veto the controversial measure.

The ACLU contends the “reasonably comparable” language is too vague, and doesn’t meet federal anti-discrimination laws related to school settings, which allow single-sex extracurricular activities only if, according to the ACLU, they are “substantially related” to improving education, and if “substantially equal” alternatives are provided to other students.

Proponents of Rhode Island’s new law counter that the “reasonably comparable” language is drawn from an exemption to the federal law banning gender bias in education. The exemption states that the gender discrimination law (Title IX) does not preclude “father-son or mother-daughter activities” at a school if “opportunities for reasonably comparable activities [are] provided for students of the other sex.” (20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)(8))

Father-daughter dance

State Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D.-Cranston) introduced the Rhode Island measure (S-12A) in the wake of a September 2012 ban against gender-specific events in Cranston schools imposed by the Cranston School Superintendent. The Cranston Public Schools prohibition followed an ACLU complaint on behalf of a single mother of a fourth grade student about a father-daughter “Me and My Guy Dinner Dance.” The invitation to that event asked students to bring the “adult male” of their choice.

In imposing the ban, the superintendent expressed concern that single-gender events could violate the state’s anti-bias laws related to schools (RIGL § 16-38-1.1(a)), particularly since, unlike Title IX, no specific exemptions were spelled out in the state law.

The new law amends the statute prohibiting gender discrimination in Rhode Island schools. In addition to requiring “comparable activities” as a condition to permitting single-gender events, the law requires school districts “to allow and notify students that they may bring the adult of their parent’s or guardian’s choice to the event.” This provision will allow children to be accompanied by a parent or guardian who is not the same gender as the focus of an event, such as a single mother attending a father/daughter event.

‘Reasonably comparable’ activities

The primary challenge facing school administrators under the new law is determining if a gender-specific extracurricular event is “reasonably comparable” to another gender-specific activity sponsored by a school. For example, a mother-son activity (baseball game) of a similar nature to a father-daughter event (softball game) would likely satisfy the law, as long as the invitation to the event makes clear that a child’s parent(s) or guardian gets to choose which adult will accompany the child to the activity.

Events that are more disparate in nature (e.g., father/daughter dance and mother/son baseball game) may face a more vigorous challenge. Is a dance “reasonably comparable” to a baseball game? In some ways, yes, because they both promote physical activity and parent-child bonding in a group setting. But they are also dissimilar in that baseball is a sport activity while a dance is more in the nature of a social event. A legal challenge to a baseball game involving boys and a dance involving girls would also undoubtedly include an argument that these activities promote gender stereotypes.

Before permitting a single-gender event, school administrators must plan ahead and carefully consider what comparable event for the opposite gender they will also sponsor.

Matt is a partner at Barton Gilman where he focuses on school law and civil litigation.